Beat Break: Dreamville’s Elite Shares the Story Behind His 5 Biggest Songs
Like 40 to Drake, Sounwave to Kendrick and Mike Dean to Kanye, Elite is one of J. Cole's closest collaborators and most trusted ears. The pair first met through a Canibus fan forum in the early '00s, when a 15-year-old Cole sent Elite the first song he ever recorded, "The Storm." "I was like, ‘damn, this is crazy!" Elite remembers. "We kept in touch online and when he moved to New York to go to St. John’s, we built a relationship and started working together."
Since then, Elite has worked closely with Cole on early projects like The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights, as well as co-producing some of his biggest songs, including "Who Dat" and "Crooked Smile." Last year's 4 Your Eyez Only saw Elite step up to the plate as an executive producer while picking up seven production credits on the album. "I was just an ear that he trusted along the process," he says.
Being part of a team seems to be Elite's strength as a producer. Prior to linking up with J. Cole and Dreamville, he was an in-house producer for Ruff Ryders, earning placements with DMX, Jadakiss and Styles P—and the story behind that is just as crazy: "I was taking a study abroad class for music and the younger sister of Dee and Waah, the CEOs of Ruff Ryders, was taking the same class. I didn't know who her brothers were at the time," he explains. "We talked about working together, she brought me to the studio and I was like, 'oh my God!'"
While Elite is always down to collaborate with artists outside of the Dreamville circle, right now he's focused on helping the label's emerging roster, including Bas, J.I.D and Ari Lennox. "There's so much talent here," he says. "I'm very inspired to take what we've learned along the way and apply it to them."
Here are the stories behind five of Elite's biggest songs.
Jadakiss — “Why (Remix)” ft. Common, Nas, Styles P & Anthony Hamilton (2004)
"The clock was winding down and everyone kept asking, ‘did the Nas vocals come in yet?!’"
“That’s not my favorite story [laughs]. When I was an in-house producer at Ruff Ryders, when there was a job to be done, like a remix, they’d give the assignment to all the in-house producers and whoever came up with the best version would get the placement. At that time, ‘Why’ was a big song and they wanted to do a remix. The whole idea was to get Nas and Common and all these artists on it, so the concept was there before the song.
“I had actually done another version that was completely different—it had pianos, it was a dark take on the song. I loved it, I thought it was great, but it was just too different from the original song for them. So my second attempt was like, ‘let me just take the sample, chop it up a little bit and add some new drums.’ You know, play it more safe. So I did it and they liked it! It’s not my favorite way to work [laughs], but it was a big look for me back then.
“One of the cool things about that song is I’m pretty sure that was the first time Obama was ever referenced on a rap song [laughs]. It was early. Nas actually didn’t get on the record until the last minute. We were at the studio real late, the clock was winding down and everyone kept asking, ‘did the Nas vocals come in yet?!’ Like Khaled [laughs]. Then at the last minute, he sent in his verse. I was pretty blown away, just to have [Nas’] name attached to mine in any way was ridiculous.
“It helped a little bit because it was another thing on my discography, but the original was still the one. Everybody knew that was Havoc and I don’t want to take too much credit. That was just me chopping it up and giving it a new little flavor. I’m pretty sure the original did more for Havoc than the remix did for me.
“Actually, the original [‘Why’ remix] turned into a song that The LOX recorded, but that never came out either [laughs]. But yeah, I have [the original] somewhere, I should probably put it out some day.”
J. Cole — “Who Dat” (2011)
Co-produced by J. Cole
"We were in the studio together and when we looked at each other, we knew we had something special."
“It was a late night session in this small room at Quad [Studios] in New York. I came in and [Cole] was making a beat. It was like a sad, emotional beat, but it had some dope drums. They sounded tribal almost. I had just gone through a bunch of samples and was like, ‘here, let’s make something new.’ So I started playing samples and the [New Hope] sample came on, and he was like, ‘oh shit! What’s that?’
“We started chopping it up and doing some drums to it, and it sounded cool. But I was like, ‘what if we put those drums from that other beat on this sample?’ And he was like, ‘oh shit!’ So he did that and we both kinda looked at each other like, ‘woah! This sounds crazy.’ So then we did a bassline [*hums melody*]. You might not be able to write that [laughs]. But we edited it on the upbeat to give it more bounce, so it had a more Timbaland and Missy feel.
“I think that was one of the first times where we were in the studio together and when we looked at each other, we knew we had something special. The vibe in the room was wide-eyed. This beat sounds bigger than what we had been doing previously. [Cole] actually had those verses to another song and he pulled them out and put them on [the ‘Who Dat’ beat] and it fit. The song was done in one night, so it was pretty quick.
“[The OutKast sample] was my idea. The funny part about that is that I messed up with that—we thought [André 3000] was saying ‘Hollywood Cole,’ but then we found out later he was actually saying ‘Hollywood Court.’ That was my mistake [laughs].
“[As far as it being a single], that decision was Jay Z and Roc Nation and, of course, Cole. Everyone was just excited about the song so that’s why they went with it. It was cool, but I think we all had higher aspirations for it. I think if he would approach it now, he would simplify it writing wise and it could’ve been a bigger song. But at the same time, it was cool for him to get a bunch of bars off and let people know that he was a serious rapper.
"Maybe it wasn’t a commercial smash, but it was like, 'this kid can really rap.'”
J. Cole — “Crooked Smile” ft. TLC (2013)
Co-produced by J. Cole
"It was the first time where we sat down and were like, ‘how can we make this a radio single?’"
“‘Crooked Smile’ started when [Cole] had a live show somewhere at a small venue. He did an impromptu a capella where it was a transition between songs and Ron Gilmore started playing these keys that were actually from the Jennifer Hudson song [‘No One Gonna Love You’]. So Ron’s playing the keys and Cole started rapping his first verse from ‘Crooked Smile.’
“I had seen that and it clicked in my head that this not only had the potential to be radio but what he was saying, the message behind it, was something that people hadn’t heard from him yet on a mass level. People kinda knew him from ‘Work Out,’ ‘Can’t Get Enough.’ If you really know Cole’s discography, you know that he’s about content, but the public didn’t really know that yet. So when I texted him about it, I was like, ‘this is a chance. We can turn this into a single for people to see what you really stand for.’
"It was the first time where we sat down and were like, ‘how can we make this a radio single?’ Which can be good and bad, but in this instance, it was good because there was a greater purpose behind it. We were actually trying to say something. He had another version of the song recorded but it was completely different, so we slowed it down and tried to make it more digestible, so people can really hear the words that he’s saying.
“We made the new beat from scratch at my place [in Brooklyn] and Ron Gilmore came through and played some amazing keys. It was one of the first times where we went all out and got live instruments, live percussionist, ran all the sounds through an SSL board. Al Carty killed the bassline, he plays for Alicia Keys. We spent months on that song, going over it and over it. It’s a long song, too—it’s three verses—so we spent a lot of time trying to keep it interesting enough so that you can survive this long of a song and it can still be on radio. But it paid off in the long run.
“[The TLC feature] was Cole's idea. It was just the type of song that it was. The subject matter kinda fit along the lines of what TLC used to do with ‘Unpretty’ and those type of songs. It was more about paying homage to what they stood for as artists.
“To me, as a producer, ['Crooked Smile'] shifted things. I might have had songs that resonated previously, but this was one that I felt was giving something positive to the world. It was a contribution. It wasn’t just about, ‘hey, I’m the best rapper!’ It was something that actually affected and inspired people, so it made me fulfilled on a different level. Once you get that, you realize that’s all that really matters.”
J. Cole — “4 Your Eyez Only” (2016)
Co-produced by BLVK, J. Cole & Childish Major
Sample: Yuji Ohno “To the Oasis”
“Now, I can’t listen to it without getting emotional."
“[Cole] did that very early on. That was the song that kinda started the whole concept of the album and everything else was trying to get to that point, you know what I mean? That was a beat he found on SoundCloud by a producer who was pretty unknown [BLVK] and just blacked out for like 24 hours. He wrote and wrote and wrote to that loop. That was one song he expressed to me like, ‘we got to make this worthy of an album.’ You can’t just have an eight-minute song [laughs].
“That was another one that was really challenging because we had to track tons and tons of music and different instruments. We had musicians come in and jam through the whole song and then figure out like, ‘where is it getting distracting? Where is it helping? Where should this go?’ Similar to ‘Crooked Smile’ where it was like, ‘how can we keep it interesting enough so it will keep people’s attention, but won’t distract from the words?’ We were playing a delicate balance of adding without subtracting from the message. It took many, many hours of editing [laughs], but we got it there. I’m really proud of all that work we put on that song.
“The first time I heard [the song] it was so much to take in, I couldn’t even process it all. Now, I can’t listen to it without getting emotional. At the end of the song, I start to feel emotions rising in me. Like, ‘man, this is intense. This is really powerful.’ I think that’s one of Cole’s biggest strengths as an artist: he can really evoke emotion in people, which is not an easy thing to do. He connects with you and finds a way to pull at those strings.
“It wasn’t like I was hired [as an executive producer], I was just around and took the initiative of helping with any and every little thing—whether it was tracking musicians or editing drums or cleaning up vocals or sequencing and arranging. [Cole] was trusting me to do that and involving me in the decisions as far as what songs should be on there, what order—anything. I was just an ear that he trusted along the process. When you get to the final stages of an album of this production level, it can be an overwhelming task [laughs], so I just lightened the load on him.
“[Being an executive producer] was something that I always wanted to do, so it was a big moment for me. We had started to do that on Born Sinner but didn’t quite get all the way there. I appreciate the opportunity and the trust because that’s something that I know he doesn’t give to a lot of people.
“I think [Cole’s success] comes down to his ability—it might sound corny—to follow his heart. He sets intentions and has the confidence, the ability and the work ethic to see them through. Once he sees a goal, he’s very relentless until he achieves it. He’s also been through so many obstacles, I think he’s learned a lot from his mistakes and doesn’t repeat them. He adapts and moves more efficiently. He gets truer and truer as he goes on.”
J. Cole — “High For Hours” (2017)
Co-produced by Cam O’bi
"He actually had five verses to that song, but we all decided like, ‘alright, maybe you don’t need these two, I think people get the point’ [laughs]."
“That one, we were on the Forest Hills Drive tour. Me and Cam [O’bi]—he’s amazing, he’s done a lot of stuff for Chance The Rapper and Noname—were on the tour bus making beats. Cole was in his hotel room, he texted me like, ‘I need a beat.’ He was writing to some instrumental, I forgot what it was but it was a song that was already out. He was like, ‘I need a beat in this tempo.’
“So me and Cam started coming up with stuff, working on drums and basslines, just trying to achieve a similar feel to what he was describing to us. We hadn’t heard the verses, though. Maybe like an hour later, he came on the bus and heard what we were doing, gave us a little guidance as far as what to change. He actually had five verses to that song—he was talking about similar stuff—but we all decided like, ‘alright, maybe you don’t need these two, I think people get the point’ [laughs]. Once he gets in the zone, he keeps going, that’s the thing.
“That was a song that had been sitting around for a while. It was considered for the album but it didn’t fit the narrative, so we held off on it and decided to throw it out there before Obama left office, so it still kinda had some relevancy.
“Man, it’s been fun. I’m proud of [Cole]. I remember back when we were young—I told him this the other day—he used to say things that were kinda outlandish. I used to be like, ‘wow, he really shoots high’ [laughs]. It always struck me that this kid was confident. He doesn’t think small, he thinks big. That was something that always inspired me. The only way to become as successful as he is is to shoot at that level, and most people are too scared to even think in such big terms.”